October, 2011

Our work

Our work
You might be surprised to read that our work is far broader than nature reserves and Big Garden Birdwatch. Read more about what else we do.

Martin Harper's blog

I’ve been the RSPB’s Conservation Director since May 2011. As I settle into the job, I’ll be blogging on all the big conservation topics and providing an inside view of our conservation projects. I hope you enjoy reading it and feel inspired to join in t
  • In praise of a national treasure

    I grew up watching David Attenborough.  His programmes always inspired and they fuelled my teenage desire to visit beautiful places to see fabulous wildlife.  The DVDs of his earlier series are now helping to open the eyes of my kids to the wonders of the natural world.  It was, therefore, an unexpected joy to bump into his new series, Frozen Planet, last night.

    As ever, the programme was a mix of the spectacular (icebergs forming) and the new (mating polar bears).  It started with David (looking a bit cold it has to be said) issuing a portentous warning that 'we' would visit the frozen poles, perhaps for the last time.  Without mentioning the impact of climate change, the message was clear - these natural wonders are at risk.  So, we should do something about it.

    And that is at the heart of our nature conservation mission - the need to act now to protect or restore a world richer in wildlife. 

    My excuse for watching telly last night was that I was in a Belfast hotel room.  I'd been visiting our Northern Ireland team to hear about and see some of the work that we are doing across the water.  And I was taken by the team to Lough Beg where we are trying to restore a floodplain grazing marsh for waders such as lapwing and redshank. 

    It's a stunning site and, according to some who know, was once the best site for waders in the whole of the UK.  Change in land management practices has altered the habitat with rush and scrub taking over to the cost of the waders.  Now, thanks to funding from  the EU (European Regional Development Fund's INTERREG IVA Programme) and the Department of the Environment in Northern Ireland, we have come up with a new project to do something about it.  It's part of HELP - the halting environmental loss project -  and it links work that we and others are doing across Ireland and in Scotland.   

    At Lough Beg we are working with famers to try to get on top of the rush and establish more sympathetic grazing regimes.  With hard work and continuous investment, we intend to put back what was lost so the site can provide a wildlife spectacle once again. 

    I am sure that David would be approve. 

  • Cementing our relationships

    We all like to receive the plaudits of our peers, but do Award ceremonies really matter?  In recent weeks the RSPB has been invited to a number - and it appears we are in the middle of the Awards season.  But what do they actually achieve?  Well, for two recent award ceremonies - it was great to hear about the worthy winners. The first was Chris Dowse, the Estate Manager of Sir Richard Sutton's Settled Estates in Lincolnshire. Chris won the Farmers Weekly Countryside Farmer of the Year Award.  He has long been a champion of farm wildlife conservation. Not only has he provided the mix of in-field and field edge habitats on the estate, but his work has gone beyond the estate boundary.  Through actively demonstrating what he has done, he has undoubtedly inspired many other farmers to step up for nature through his work with LEAF (Linking Environment and Farming).  Over the years it has been great for us at the RSPB to have had such a great working relationship with Chris - a relationship where I think it is safe to say we have both benefited. As Chris retires from the estate shortly, I wish him well. He leaves in the knowledge he has achieved something we should all do - leave behind a place which is more wildlife-rich than that he inherited.

    The second worthy winner came a few weeks later.  At the Mineral Products Association/Natural England Biodiversity Award, CEMEX - the global minerals company won first prize for their hugely impressive conservation work at Rugeley.  On the doorstep of Cannock Chase, the quarry had real potential - potential to create an impressive heathland for wildlife and the local community.  But as a long-suffering Arsenal fan, I know all too well that potential on its own isn't enough!   Well CEMEX rose to the challenge and with help have created somewhere really special.  With an area nearly the size of a 100 football pitches for wildlife, we are working with them and the local community to provide homes for reptiles, butterflies and, of course, birds.  And that’s just for starters. As the quarry moves through its phases, more and more heathland will be created. We have had fantastic support already from people who live and work close to the site in particular from the Friends of Cannock Chase and the Lichfield and District RSPB Local Group. There are some truly inspiring and passionate people, like Rob Winstanley, who have really Stepped Up For Nature by helping with the practical work on site as well as being passionate advocates for the wildlife.
    A global company delivering locally.  But it goes beyond that.  Last year, we worked with CEMEX to develop and launch it's Biodiversity Strategy. Committing itself to delivering 1,000 hectares of priority habitat creation by 2020,  Rugeley shows what can be achieved when industry, a nature conservation charity and local communities get together. It bodes well for that future 1,000 hectares.  If they reach the standard of Rugeley, there will be many more fantastic sites for people and nature to enjoy.

    So, do Awards matter?  I think they do. They reward good people doing good things.  But even more than that, they show the art of the possible. Whether you are the Secretary of State for Defra having committed the UK to play its part in halting the loss of global biodiversity by 2020, a company with the capability to shape the landscape, a farmer managing the countryside, or a member of the local communty who cares about nature, it shows what can be achieved.  Nature needs it's heroes, and awards like these help to recognise them.  I congratulate Chris and CEMEX for what they have achieved to date.  Nature just needs more people to step up and follow their example.

  • Debating Europe - time to redirect political attention?

    It turns out that 111 MPs defied the party whips to vote for a referendum on our membership of the European Union.  I find it odd that so much emotional energy has been and still is invested in debating this issue.  At times I wish as much effort was invested in trying to reform existing EU policies and regulations.  As the Foreign Secretary said in yesterday's debate, this is not the time for the UK to be marginalised when a trillion euros is up for grabs as part of the EU Budget for 2014-2020.

    But for an environmentalist it is hard to see how we can achieve our objectives without some form of trans-national arrangement.  This is not a defence of the European Union model - just a statement of fact.  If you want to tackle climate change you need countries to work together to agree to reductions of greenhouse gas emissions (ideally in line with the science).  If you want to have a significant impact on the unsustainable trade in wild birds, then you are more likely to have more of an impact if you choke the supply to a large geographical area rather than just one country.

    And, if you want to prevent any country for obtaining competititve advantage by destroying her local environment, then it makes sense to have some standard rules by which important places are protected.  This was, as it happens, one of the defining purposes of the 1979 Birds Directive and its sister, the Habitats and Species Directive of 1992.  Since then, these directives have delivered great things.  Not only have they improved the prospects of wildlife across Europe, but they have also established remarkably sensible rules to guide sustainable development. 

    Under these nature directives for example, if a development is have an adverse impact on a site of European importance then it is the obligation of the developer to determine whether there is an alternative, more benign way of achieving the objective of the development.  And if there is not, then the development will need to be of overriding national interest to proceed. And if it is, then there is an obligation to compensate for the damage caused by replacing the extent and functional quality of the habitat which has been lost.  That's a pretty straightforward way to assess whether development is sustainable to me.

    Yes, the EU has its faults - cumbersome or bureacratic at times, prone to the odd madcap idea etc - but about 80% of our environmental laws started with debates from within the Union.  If it didn't exist, well for the environment at least, we'd probably have to create something similar in its place.

    But you may disagree.  Can you think of a more efficient way to organise ourselves to save the planet?